Winter reflections on the nature of refuge

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

To say it's cold outside is an understatement. The last time I checked the thermometer, it read 35º Fahrenheit (1,7ºC), a paltry three degrees above zero.

That said, our outdoor animals are doing well. The chickens are cozy in their coop, jostling for the best positions on their roost before settling in for the night. And I offered the rabbits a nice head of cabbage to nibble on before insulating their hutch with wool blankets.

Both chickens and rabbits are extremely cold tolerant. Chickens are comfortable in temperatures well into the teens. Rabbits need a little more warmth: they are unhappy if the temperature drops below thirty.

That said, rabbits and chickens need to be protected from drafts and cold breezes on days like today. So I always triple check to make sure their enclosures are weathertight.

For our indoor pets, things are a little simpler. We have two farm cats, Finn and Enso, who live with us in the house. Finn stays in the house all year round and he doesn't care much about the weather outside. Enso is an indoor/outdoor cat. In spring, summer and early fall, he stays inside just long enough to eat before asking to be allowed outside again.

However, the winter months are a little too cold for him. He runs outside just long enough to make sure everything is where he left it, then he looks out the kitchen window and asks to come inside. He hates being inside and will be cranky until spring, but we love him anyway.

At this time of year, my main concern is checking the weather several times a day and making sure all of our animals have the appropriate level of protection. The interesting thing is that when my animals have good shelter, the weather is almost irrelevant.

There may be rain and freezing snow in winter, or heat waves and droughts in summer. As long as I provide them with a place of refuge, they will be safe from the storm.

Farm animals aren't the only ones in need of shelter. In fact, I would say that humans need shelter much more than our animal friends.

First, we need safe physical spaces. We need homes with sturdy walls and a heat source to compensate for our lack of fur and feathers to keep us warm. In the West, I think it's fair to say that we also need electricity and indoor plumbing to stay alive, because most homes don't have chimneys and aren't built near sources of water. 'potable water.

Second, we need mental and spiritual refuge. This is another point where animals do better than us.

My chickens are wonderful, but they are not great philosophers. They don't think about the meaning of life, they don't lie awake at night worrying about what tomorrow has in store for them. As long as they are fed and protected from predators, my animals are unfazed by world events.

Humans, on the other hand, struggle with the slings and arrows of life. We carry psychological wounds caused by events that occurred days, weeks, and sometimes years ago. These wounds become storms and rage in our minds with great fury.

So we find ourselves in a strange situation where everything seems fine on the outside, but inside we feel like we are dying.

In times like these, we must follow the example of our animal friends. We must take refuge from the storm. But because the storm is spiritual in nature, it requires spiritual shelter.

This is where Buddhism comes in.

In his infinite wisdom and compassion, the Buddha saw fit to leave us the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, as places of refuge.

When our minds are fearful and filled with unhelpful thoughts, these three refuges offer us shelter from the elements and tools to help us find our way.

When we seek refuge with the Buddha, we follow his example, engaging in the ritual practices he used 2 years ago to calm his mind. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we study Buddhist scriptures and glean knowledge that helps us lead a life of morality and compassion. When we take refuge in the Sangha, we turn to our community of spiritual friends, treat them generously, and ask for help when we need it.

By learning to take refuge in the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we protect ourselves from the most damaging blows that life inflicts on us. We soothe pain and transform our suffering into fuel for enlightenment.

Namu Amida Butsu

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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